Not learning from the past in Sri Lanka and beyond

By Savi Hensman
August 1, 2018

In July 1983, Sri Lanka was engulfed by violence. The ruling party at the time had ‘postponed’ the general election due and instead unleashed a wave of arson, murder and ethnic cleansing against Tamils.

I was 21 years old and in London at the time, my parents in Colombo. It took me, I think, a couple of days to find out that they were still alive. Others were not so lucky. Thankfully numerous members of the Sinhalese majority sheltered their neighbours.

Many years of suffering followed. The brutal mistreatment of the island’s largest minority drove some to revolt. Meanwhile poor economic prospects and the choking off of peaceful dissent led some Sinhalese youths to join a separate rebellion.

Both were ruthlessly suppressed by the state, while the armed rebels too committed atrocities against civilians. Many thousands of non-combatants were injured, held without trial, tortured or killed.

Members of the Muslim minority too were sucked into the conflict. The Tigers, as well as acts of terror against other communities, murdered suspected dissidents in their own. The Indian army was, for a while, drawn in too.

Thirty-five years later, some efforts have been made at reconciliation by the government now in power. But many grievances have not been settled, nor a culture of human rights restored on firm foundations.

Neoliberal economic policies have increased the insecurity many feel. Some yearn for an authoritarian leader, whether the politician Gotabaya Rajapaksa, one of whose followers admiringly compared him to Hitler, or a figure like the brutal late Tamil nationalist Prabhakaran.

In much of Europe and the USA  too, though the Nazi era is within living memory, many people are drawn to an extreme right which promises to restore national pride. The lesson from history, that policies based on hatred and warmongering can bring disaster not only on minorities but also the majority, too often go unheeded.

The peddling of a distorted version of Christianity to try to justify this, rather as Buddhism was twisted by the Sri Lankan state into its opposite, is alarming. To counter this frightening trend, it may be helpful to raise awareness of history as well as finding positive ways of dealing with people’s fears, bringing communities together and celebrating what is praiseworthy in majority and minority cultures.

Being realistic about the human capacity for getting things wrong is important too, and being alert for the misuse of the language of faith. The past has shown the destructive consequences of hatred and abuse of power.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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